Earmarks. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, this form of spending is a staple in the legislative process. While more frequently maligned than not, I personally am a firm believer in the positive benefits of earmarks if –IF- they help meet a justified need. The most common example of malfeasance- the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere”- is admittedly a disgrace of political pandering and misused funds. The counterexamples of community centers, training, mental health services, 911 call centers, and so much more are, however, not as pronounced. Why should they be used as counterweights to the argument when the end goal of opponents is to banish earmarks altogether? (Pardon the rhetorical question and virtual soapbox!)
The point of this quicky post isn’t to counteract the naysayers, but rather to showcase that earmarks are alive and well. Even with the Republican-backed voluntary two-year ban that went into effect in 2010, earmark spending has changed little with almost $300 million in special interested funding in 2012. Most conservatives nowadays have rejected the Norquist-line of thought and re-boarded the earmark bandwagon. That being the case, how can you and your agency take advantage?
First and foremost in securing an earmark is relationship-building. Get to know your state’s elected representative(s). Most representatives have a designated staff member to manage funding requests. Contact their office and ask for more information related funding assistance. Send a memo, email, and/or letter explaining who you are and why you need funding along with what efforts you’ve made to secure funding previously (i.e., budget requests, grants, etc.). Maintain regular contact in regards to your need for funding along with talking points about why your project should be selected for an earmark. Keep in mind that you have to make this mutually beneficial. Are you in a district that offers partisan advantage in upcoming election(s)? Do you have a large population served? How will you advertise the earmark to the community if it is received?
Exploring this path is by no means a guarantee your representative(s) will agree to help. Regardless, it is one more avenue to secure funding that should not be left untraveled. The old adage “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” certainly applies in this case- diversify your funding sources to provide your agency the best chance possible to implement all those needed upgrades, new equipment, personnel, etc. From personnel experience, I have helped with earmarks that have taken anywhere from 1 to 3 years to secure. Just prepared to wait for this process to work!
Earmark Ban Fails to Stop Lawmaker Requests for Spending
You have probably heard of or experienced (if you have kids) the whole Build-A-Bear Workshop. The head/body is selected, stuffed, sewn up, accessories picked out, and then payment is made. Developing a grant application is quite similar. You construct your application, fill in valuable details, polish it up with a few re-reads edits, and then ensure you have all your other components included (i.e., assurances, letters of support, etc.). Here’s a brief overview of my process to “Build-A-Grant”:
1) Read the Program Guidelines and create your application outline. Most federal and state grants provide program guidelines that detail the particulars of the program and the application process. As I read through these requirements, I write/type the application requirements as they are listed. This creates a framework for my application itself. Under each of the general sections such as Program Abstract, Program Narrative, Implementation Plan, etc., I create subheadings for the different information that needs to be included in these sections as detailed in the Guidelines. My resulting framework then my look something like this (headings in bold, subheadings in italics):
Major Goals & Objectives
Project Partners and/or Resources
Budget & Budget Narrative
Description and Justification of Expenses
Once the framework is built, begin to flesh out your application by responding to each subheading with a few sentences each.
2) Include details. Once you have your framework built and your sections begin to take shape, insert details and information that are relevant to your project and really highlight what is unique about it. For instance, under Target Population you want to convey you understand your audience. Define who they are, your past/present interactions, and why they have been identified as the target of your project. Under Project Partners and/or Resources, describe who will collaborate with you to successfully implement this project. What experience do you or your partners have in dealing with the identified problem and/or the target population? What internal resources will you be committing to this project? What resources will you need to successfully implement?
3) Reread and edit. Once you have your grant application written, ask others to read and critique it. Did you justify your problem clearly? Does your project plan clearly align with the program’s priorities? Does your implementation plan, goals and objectives appear feasible and realistic?
4) Accessorize. Ensure you have all the required application components detailed in the program guidelines. Missing even one element can cause your application to be rejected. If you can’t follow application directions, how can a funder trust you to responsibly utilize grant funding?
5) Submit. Once you have completed all these steps, it’s time to submit your application, sit back, and wait anywhere from 30-120 days until further notification. Use this lag time to identify other potential funding opportunities, identify potential partners, and educate yourself to be a better grants writer.
As always, good luck and happy writing!
If you were drawn to this post because you want to prepare for the end of the world, you will likely be disappointed. If you want to be successful in the pursuit of grant funding, then you might be more pleased. Today’s subject is the concept of preparing to write a grant. You may not have a grant program in mind; you may not have ever written a funding request before. Regardless, you can prepare yourself for funding success with minimal effort and/or time.
During one grants conference I attended, I remember a speaker waxing poetic on this subject. One suggestion he made struck me as both ingenious and easy: creating a file of newspaper articles. Articles related to your agency/department, a natural disaster or emergency event in the area- really anything notable that could later be incorporated or mentioned in a future request. These articles essentially act as evidence and/or provide justification when you are stating your need for funding.
Another tip for grants preparation is to begin identifying possible project partners now. Who are the leaders of your neighborhood associations and/or other community groups? Are there any folks with grants experience at these agencies? Are there neighboring jurisdictions that you may be able to collaborate with? Once you have these folks identified, examine what (if any) professional working relationships exist. Is there a Memorandum of Understanding/Agreement (MOU/MOA) in place? Have you worked with them in the past and has that project(s) been successful? Identifying potential partners now and any previous interaction will 1) help streamline partner selection later and 2) lay the groundwork for your agency to begin putting out its “feelers” for possible, future collaboration.
Educate yourself! There are numerous free webinars hosted throughout the year that discuss upcoming funding opportunities, basic grant application development, and other grants-related topics. Even if you cannot make the date and time the webinar is originally offered, most are made available later on via a link to a presentation recording.
Let’s recap, shall we? There are three basic steps to becoming a successful “Grants Prepper”:
1) Collect notable stories and articles related to your agency, community, city, region, etc.
2) Identify possible partners.
3) Take advantage of free grants-related webinars.
As always, good luck and happy writing!
My background is soundly based in Public Administration, with an MPA and local government work experience in the cultural arts department as well as budget and finance (polar opposites I know- I am diverse like that!). The Cultural Arts was well attuned to the availability of grants- mainly from the NEA and larger private foundations- but the rest of local government outside of public safety seemed woefully unaware of the funding opportunities available to them. Take for instance the numerous grant programs available through EDA (Economic Development Administration), EPA, and HUD…not to mention grant programs offered by individual states (like the shared services grant programs in New York, Michigan, and New Jersey!).
Truth be told, there are lots of funding opportunities for planning, economic development, and even infrastructure improvement projects. That being said, these opportunities do often require more complex project designs and partnerships than a lot of governmental agencies are accustomed. Take for instance HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant Program. It is now accepting applications and awarding up to $500,000 per project! That’s a lot of moolah to implement a project that can have some serious impact. This particular grant program encourages locally driven solutions for transforming distressed neighborhoods by revitalizing severely distressed public and/or assisted housing and investing and leveraging investments in well-functioning services, crime prevention strategies, public assets, public transportation, and improved access to jobs.
Choice Neighborhoods is focused on three core goals:
1. Housing: Replace distressed public and assisted housing with high-quality mixed-income housing that is well-managed and responsive to the needs of the surrounding neighborhood;
2. People: Improve educational outcomes and intergenerational mobility for youth and supports delivered directly to youth and their families; and
3. Neighborhood: Create the conditions necessary for public and private reinvestment in distressed neighborhoods to offer the kinds of amenities and assets, including safety, good schools, and commercial activity, that are important to families’ choices about their community.
Application period is open until May 28th! So what are you waiting for? Get scheming with your fellow agencies and develop a winning proposal! Click here for more information: Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant.
Applying for grants can be (and often is) a stressful process with a limited window of opportunity- around a 30 day application period for most grant programs. Make life a little easier on yourself and get “grants ready” by ensuring you have all the usernames, passwords, and identification numbers required to submit federal grants.
An incentive for doing this now is the wait time it can take to secure something like a grants.gov username and password. In some cases, it can take up to 3 weeks! The last thing you want to be stressing about is whether you can submit your application because you didn’t allow enough lead time to get the username (and yes, I have worked with a client where this happened).
The good news is that with a few simple clicks and forms, you will be well on your way to applying for federal grant programs. You don’t want to miss your chance to get a piece of the $400 billion in annual grant funding because of a simple oversight!
Let’s get this straight from the get go: there is no one “right way” to write a grant. We all have individual writing styles with unique quirks in phrasing, structure, and expression. Reviewers aren’t grading your writing “voice”- they are scoring how well you describe your project! How well did you establish your problem? Does your prescribed solution/project adequately address that problem? Even more importantly, does your project fit within the grant program’s funding priorities? Asnwering these questions well are key to being a successful grant writer.
Here are some simple tips & tricks to help you in addressing these questions:
1) Be clear and concise! Your reviewer shouldn’t be left scratching their heads about what the problem(s) is. This should be immediately evident.
2) Provide strong data, statistics, and maybe even a real-life anecdote. Convey the urgency and/or consequence of your problem by backing it up with local data and statistics (EXTRA TIP: you can even compare this to National standards if there is a real disparity!). Even better yet- incorporate a recent event that demonstrates the problem (and/or its effects).
3) Align with the Grant Program’s funding priorities. Even the most well-designed project won’t get funded if it has no relevance to the grant program itself. Funder’s fund what is important to them, not to you!
As always, happy writing (and good luck!).